They say necessity is the mother of invention, and many U.S. regional airlines are desperate for an inventive solution to their pilot woes. While some are pitching a potential — but unlikely — increase in the mandatory pilot retirement age to paying regional crews the same as their mainline counterparts, SkyWest Airlines has another bold answer: start a new airline.
The Utah-based carrier applied for certification of its new SkyWest Charter subsidiary to the U.S. Department of Transportation on June 17 in an application released publicly on June 21. The new airline would allow them to serve smaller cities, by connecting “underserved cities” across the country with frequent flights “to the national transportation system,” according to the application.
Many cities that fit this description are threatened with losing air service amid a national pilot shortage — SkyWest Airlines is exiting 29 small markets — and the resulting run up in wages as airlines compete to attract available talent.
SkyWest Charter’s answer to the pilot situation is the DOT’s “Part 135” public air charter certification that allows an airline to hire pilots with as little as 250 hours, rather than the 1,500 required for pilots at scheduled carriers like SkyWest Airlines or American Airlines. This expands the pool of eligible pilots. SkyWest Charter can do this by flying a fleet of Bombardier CRJ200 aircraft with just 30 seats — the maximum allowed under 135 rules — instead of the standard 50 seats.
“There are some good opportunities with 135 operators to help utilize [the CRJ200] and backfill some of the things that we’ve been doing,” SkyWest Airlines CEO Chip Childs said in April. He hinted at the time that the carrier could use some of its idled CRJ200s to fly under 135 certification in order to maintain air service to small communities.
The DOT’s 135 certification has been a popular way for airlines to fly under the 1,500 hour rule. Rapidly growing regional airline Southern Airways Express operates under the classification, and in May its CEO Stan Little said that it may be “the only airline in the country that has more pilots than” it needs. Other airlines, including private-like carrier JSX, also use the certification standard.
Asked about the 1,500 hour rule that SkyWest Airlines is subject to in April, Childs said: “We’re actually not looking to modify any law, particularly with 1,500 hours is a component that’s out there. We think it’s a terrible way to train pilots, but we don’t think that the reality of what’s happening in D.C. is going to necessarily make a move in that area.”
Finding a way to ease the burden of the 1,500 hour rule is a focus for the regional airline industry. The segment’s trade group, the Regional Airlines Association, is working to boost the supply of pilots through flight schools and pushing the federal government for increased assistance to help defray the cost. Cape Air CEO Linda Markham has called for credits towards the hour requirements for accredited training programs. And Republic Airways has gone as far as to request an exemption from part of the 1,500 hour rule for trainees from its Lift Academy.
SkyWest Charter hopes to begin flights in October pending DOT sign off. The airline intends to launch with three or four aircraft and flights to four or five cities, and gradually ramp up to a fleet of 18 CRJ200s serving 25 cities by April 2023.
The airline’s list of potential destinations center around a main base in Denver, but also at Chicago O’Hare and Houston Intercontinental. From Denver, SkyWest Charter could serve: Devils Lake and Jamestown, N.D.; Dodge City, Hays, Liberal, and Salina, Kan.; Gillette, Laramie, Riverton, Rock Springs, and Sheridan, Wyo.; North Platte and Scottsbluff, Neb.; Prescott, Ariz.; Pueblo, Colo.; Sioux City, Iowa; and Vernal, Utah. Chicago could see flights to Decatur, Ill.; Fort Dodge and Mason City, Iowa; Hancock, Mich.; Johnstown, Pa.; and Paducah, Ky. Houston could connect to Hattiesburg/Laurel and Meridian, Miss. SkyWest Charter noted that flights to many of these destinations would be subject to the award of competitive DOT essential air service contracts.
SkyWest Airlines did not mention a partnership for SkyWest Charter with a major carrier, like United Airlines, in its application to the DOT. However, given the former’s close ties with Alaska Airlines, American, Delta Air Lines, and United, some form of partnership for the new airline is expected.
SkyWest Charter’s application received at least eight letters of support from small airports. All called the proposed airline an “innovative plan” to maintain scheduled flights to their communities.